While attending the Canadian Aboriginal Mining Association (CAMA) conference in Saskatoon last November, I took part in an educational expedition organized by the Cree Mineral Exploration Board. The goal of the expedition was to assist a group of trappers from the Mistissini First Nation to get answers to their questions and concerns regarding the mining and exploration of uranium. Personally, I was pretty excited about the opportunity of attending the session because, although I do have a mining engineering background, my exposure to uranium mining and exploration is nonexistent.
The group was chosen because a significant amount of uranium exploration is occurring within 240 kilometres of the Mistissini First Nation in northern Quebec. The bulk of the exploration is concentrated around the lakes, rivers and streams that flow into or around the community. Understandably, its members are concerned about the health and environmental ramifications of this exploration.
In a search for answers, we went to the region where most of the world’s uranium can be found. The Prince Albert Grand Council (PAGC) tribal region, also known as the Athabasca Basin in northern Saskatchewan, hosts the largest high-grade uranium mines and deposits in the world. Cameco, the world’s largest low-cost uranium producer, accounting for 18 per cent of the world’s uranium production, operates three mines and one dedicated mill in the region, with the collaboration of the surrounding First Nations. Among the major mines are Cameco’s flagship McArthur River mine, the developing Cigar Lake mine, the Rabbit Lake mine and the world’s largest uranium mill at Key Lake. As well, Cameco has purchased large amounts of mineral rights in northern Quebec.
Given these facts, our efforts focused on stimulating dialogue between the communities from northern Saskatchewan and Cameco. We felt that it would be most beneficial to have the delegation first talk to an Aboriginal leader from the region, so our first meeting was with Don Deranger, PAGC’s Vice-Chief, who has been instrumental in helping develop the mining industry in northern Saskatchewan in a way that benefits and strengthens Aboriginal communities and its members. The Vice-Chief’s extensive experience in the uranium mining industry is a shining example of the power of just one Aboriginal voice.
Our delegates were fascinated with the Vice-Chief’s experience and strong bond with his traditional lands. He spent years hunting and trapping and living off the land, which our delegates could relate to because many of them still hunt and trap in the traditional territories. Also having worked in the uranium mining industry for nearly 30 years, Deranger was able to answer many of the participants’ questions and concerns. We felt that this meeting was the most important of our expedition because the delegates were able to relate to someone with the Vice-Chief’s background and experiences.
Regarding the health concerns, the Vice-Chief explained that uranium is one of the safest minerals to be mined in Canada due to the stringent regulations set by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). To illustrate the complexity behind uranium mining, he cited one of the future uranium mines as an example: although it will be opening within the next two years, the deposit was actually discovered in 1977!
Our final meeting was with Gary Merasty, Vice President of Social Responsibility at Cameco. Previously, Merasty was the Grand Chief of the PAGC. He organized a meeting with a team of managers and mine Elders that he hoped would be able to answer any questions that our delegates still might have. In each of our meetings, we asked every person we met if they knew of anyone who had been sick from mining uranium, and not a single person was able to recall anyone.
After the delegates were reassured of the safety and highly specialized procedures that the workers follow, they were more interested in switching the conversation and focusing on how they could potentially benefit from this development. They were interested in being a part of the development and not just sitting on the sidelines while the resources in their lands are exploited.
This mission was very successful. Based on the information gathered from Deranger and other delegates from mining communities, the delegates were confident that the safety procedures in place were adequate, and that uranium mining was in their best interest.
Oh, and by the way, about the title, we were told by Merasty about the struggle they face trying to work with some of the Inuit communities — the Inuit translation for uranium is “the rock that kills.”
Juan Carlos Reyes is an Aboriginal consultant with efficiency.ca and the executive director of Learning Together. He is passionate about human rights and works tirelessly to help improve the lives of Canadian Aboriginal people.